As our public lands begin to reopen this spring, a “revelation” (…ahem!) occurred to me that I should post a reminder of the four notable hazards that explorers in WyEast Country should be aware of as they head into the wilds — especially the Columbia River Gorge.
Though not quite on the epic scale of the Biblical quartet of Death, Famine, War and Conquest (arriving on horseback!), these trail threats are real for hikers and should (and can easily) be avoided. I’ve written detailed articles on a couple of our local “horsemen” in the past, and you’ll find links within this article if you’re looking for a deeper dive. The fourth “horseman” is lesser known, will likely be a surprise to you, so read on!
The First Horseman: Ticks
Several tick species are expanding their range in Oregon, so it’s a fact of life that we all need to accept and build health and safety routines into our outdoor activity. I posted this longer article on ticks several years ago:
This article continues to be the most-read post on the blog, viewed 185,000 times and counting! That’s a good sign that people are aware of the threat and becoming more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, it’s also true that a LOT of misguided and potentially dangerous misinformation and folklore about ticks is out there, so that’s why I posted the original piece.
While tick bites can be painful and become infected, the more serious concern is Lyme Disease. Not long ago, it was a distant worry for Oregonians, but over the past decade several cases have been reported from tick bites in Oregon, including in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Therefore, every hiker should become familiar with the symptoms of Lyme Disease and how to react if they appear after a tick bite — this is also covered in my earlier article on Ticks.
How to avoid: Ticks are thick in the dry forests and open meadows of the Columbia River Gorge, mostly east of Cascade Locks. They seem to be most abundant in the area between Hood River and The Dalles. When hiking in this area, always wear long pants, ideally tucked into your socks, long sleeves and avoid lingering in tall grass or brush, as this is prime tick habitat.
Ticks find us by detecting the CO2 we emit, and they simply wait on a stem of grass or twig for us (or a deer, or any other red-blooded host) to pass by, and jump on when we brush against them. Ticks are in the arachnid family, and like their spider cousins, have eight legs. Through a behavior known as “questing”, ticks hold their front legs up to function as CO2 antennae when stalking a host (below), and simply climb on when one wanders by.
Once onboard, ticks move quickly to locate uncovered skin and latch on to their host to feed on blood. While you might notice a tick biting you, you’re more likely to discover them when you get home from a hike, firmly embedded. So, everyone should do a complete body scan (with a hand mirror) followed by a shower after spending time in the Gorge, Clackamas Country or the sagebrush country east of Mount Hood.
Should you discover a tick, I recommend using the “Pro-Tick Remedy” tool (below) to remove it. I’m an infamous “tick magnet” and have pulled many of these unwelcome guests over the years. This simple tool works best, and it’s cheap — under $10 online. I carry one in every pack and even when I’m traveling. Tiny and effetive.
By the way, if you want to ensure you’ll bring ticks home from your next hike in the east Gorge, bring your dog! You probably won’t notice the ticks until they’re crawling around the car on the drive home, and even dogs with Advantix or similar protection can still carry plenty of ticks on their fur. I have three wonderful dogs, but I leave them home when I’m in tick country. It’s just safer for my pups and me!
The Second Horseman: Poison Oak
A beautiful and adaptive plant, our native Poison Oak occurs throughout the Columbia River Gorge, in Clackamas country and along Mount Hood’s east slope. We could even use this elegant plant in our gardens if… oh, right… it’s toxic! I posted this blog article on Poison Oak several years ago:
This piece continues to get heavy traffic every year, and it’s right behind the tick article as a most-read article, with over 84,000 views and counting! That’s good news, as awareness of its appearance and habitat is everything in coping with this plant.
Unlike ticks, Poison Oak is not stalking you… though sometimes it can feel that way when you find yourself in a dense thicket! But once you know how to spot the oak-shaped leaves, grouped in threes, it’s easy to spot and avoid. Poison Oak plant has three growth forms that are also important to recognize: it can grow as a low groundcover, in a thicket as a dense shrub and as a vine, climbing 30 feet or more up a tree trunk. All three forms develop from the same species and have the same leaf form, they are just adaptations of Poison Oak to its conditions.
Poison Oak prefers open forests, and especially forest margins along meadows or rocky outcrops. It can almost always be found among our iconic Oregon White Oak stands in the Gorge, where its leaves are easy to confuse with the true oaks. So, when hiking in White Oak country, just assume there’s Poison Oak, as well, and tread mindfully.
Poison Oak has oils on its leaves and in its stems (and roots) that are the source of skin reactions for so many of us. The plants are deciduous, so you’re much less likely to have a reaction during the winter months, though some have reported a reaction to even the bare stems. They are most toxic in spring, when their emerging, new foliage shines with oil.
How to avoid: I’ve been hiking in the Gorge for the better part of a half-century, and have never had a reaction to Poison Oak. What does this mean? For starters, I know what it looks like, where it grows and I’m careful to avoid it, and I also wear long pants and long sleeves in Poison Oak country. But it could be that I’m immune — some people are. After all, I’ve certainly come in contact with Poison Oak many times, despite my best efforts to avoid it.
However, evidence suggests that once you do develop a skin reaction to Poison Oak, you are more likely to react from future exposure. This is at odds with one of the most pervasive (and dangerous) folklore remedies out there that you can create an immunity by intentionally developing a rash. Quite the opposite, and that’s good motivation for learning what Poison Oak looks like, avoiding it, and always washing up when you get home from a day in the Gorge.
Research shows that plain old soap and water is just as effective in removing toxic oils as expensive chemicals sold as poison oak “cures”. The key is to act soon in removing any oils you might have picked up on exposed skin. I carry baby wipes in the car and to do a quick pass on exposed skin before the ride home, where I immediately take a soapy shower (after a tick check) to remove any remaining residue. All clothing from the hike goes straight to the wash with regular detergent. These simple steps are good prevention for both Poison Oak and ticks, so well worth incorporating into your hiking routine.
Did you know you can develop a Poison Oak reaction without ever touching a plant? It’s true. Just take your dog into Poison Oak country — especially off-leash, where you can’t monitor where Fido has been. Dogs aren’t so worried about counting those “leaves of three”, and why should they? Dogs (and cats) are immune to the oils. But the DO pick it up on their fur, later transferring it to unsuspecting owners on the ride home, or even days later to other people they encounter. So, it’s a good idea to leave your dog home when hiking in areas where Poison Oak is abundant.
The Third Horseman: Rattlesnakes
Our Western Rattlesnakes are a maligned lot. But as our only venomous snake, they are under-appreciated for the role they play controlling rodent populations. While Western Rattlesnakes occur throughout the Columbia River Gorge and much of WyEast country, they’re most common in the east Gorge and high desert country on the east slopes of the Cascades. The fear factor associated with rattlesnakes has led to these beautiful and beneficial creatures being heavily exterminated where their habitat overlaps ours, and they are losing that battle.
Bites from Western Rattlesnakes are rare, as these quiet predators are generally shy and avoid people. Most encounters come when hikers aren’t watching the trail ahead or traveling cross-country in rattlesnake country, and surprise or even step on one. Their strikes are almost always defensive, and preceded by a warning rattle. And they are often “dry” strikes without venom. While painful, their bites rarely cause serious tissue damage if treated within 18 hours, and death from a Western Rattlesnake bite is exceptionally rare.
The Western Rattlesnake in the above photo was resting in patch of Lupine at Dalles Mountain Ranch when I came across him (her?) while exploring cross-country a few years ago. I was still at least six feet away when the rattling alerted me of its presence, and had time to set up my camera for a photo. I was never closer than four feet, and the rattlesnake simply waited me out. It was a typical encounter with this quiet species.
How to avoid: Rattlesnakes spend most of their daylight hours coiled up in a protected spot — near their dens, which are typically under a rock, log or sagebrush. When hiking (especially off-trail), simply watch your feet when you’re stepping over these natural protections. Even if you do encounter a Western Rattlesnake, you’re more likely to get an impressive warning rattle and a defensive, coiled posture than a strike. Only by stepping on one or deliberately provoking it are you likely to trigger a strike. Decent boots, boot socks and long pants are always a good idea when hiking. Rattlesnakes are just one more reason why, though quite low on the threat list compared to ticks and Poison Oak.
The Fourth Horseman: Green Blister Beetles
Here’s one you didn’t see coming! Sure, there are plenty of bugs that can bite or sting you in the outdoors, but if you don’t have bee allergies, these are mostly an itchy nuisance. But, then there’s the Green Blister Beetle. You’ve heard of these, right?
Well, me neither — but I learned about them after encountering some in the field recently, and they have quite a storied AND toxic history. From the National Poison Control Center:
“Blister Beetles excrete a toxic blistering agent called cantharidin, which can cause irritation and blistering when it comes in contact with the eyes, skin, mouth, throat, or digestive tract. The irritation and blisters that form can be painful but usually are not life-threatening. Blister Beetles are notorious for their ancient use as an aphrodisiac. Not only is such use groundless, it can also be fatal.”
Cantharidin is also known as Spanish Fly, and has a long and deadly history of use as both a medicine and supposed aphrodisiac. When I encountered hundreds of Green Blister Beetles in a lupine meadow among sagebrush, near Tygh Valley, they struck me as both beautiful and interesting. But I’m glad I didn’t think to touch one, as I later learned how they earned their name. It’s worth reading the full warning at the National Poison Control center if you spend time hiking in east side meadows and sagebrush country:
Blister Beetles: Do Not Touch!
How to avoid: Green Blister Beetles are easy to avoid. They’re not out to get you, and for the most part ramble around on vegetation stalking other bugs as prey. Like most beetles, they can fly short distances when disturbed, and in the off-chance one lands on you, the Poison Control Center recommends gently blowing it off (vs. flicking or picking it off) and washing any exposed skin it might have come in contact with.
But more importantly, I’ve included Green Blister Beetles as the Fourth Horseman because they are quite beautiful, and a natural magnet for young kids looking to catch bugs. The Poison Control Center warning includes a sobering story of a 10-month old infant becoming dangerously ill from eating one. So, if you’re taking youngsters on hikes on the east side, it’s an opportunity to teach them about these beetles and why they should never be handled… along with how to recognize Poison Oak!
Honorable Mention – Northwest Forest Scorpion
There’s only room for four “horsemen” here… but I couldn’t resist an honorable mention for our fearsome-looking Northwest Forest Scorpion here. While these rarely-seen creatures can have an uber-primal effect on people, our native species is relatively harmless. They just look scary! Biologists equate it to a bee sting which rarely requires medical attention — a welcome alternative to its deadly cousins found around the world!
Northwest Forest Scorpions are nocturnal, so you’re unlikely to ever encounter one. They belong to the Arachnid family, and spend their nights preying upon small bugs. Scorpions live in forested canyons throughout WyEast country, typically near water, and spend their days resting under rocks or logs. I came across the scorpion in the above photo while clearing a couple of large rocks from the Tamanawas Falls trail, and found this 4-inch specimen curled up underneath.
In recent years, a thriving colony of scorpions at the top of Angels Rest were spotted, and images and videos have been making the rounds in social media, triggering reactions from fascination to horror. But unless you handle or provoke one, the risk of a sting from our native scorpion is minimal.
So, why the menacing title for this article? Mostly for fun, but also because the word Apocalypse comes from the Greek language, and describes “an unveiling of things not previously known.” Hopefully, this article has been a pint-sized “apocalypse” by that definition!
And while our four “horsemen” are certainly consequential hazards worth avoiding in WyEast Country, they shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying the outdoors. Simple awareness and a few precautions do the job, and besides… that long highway drive to the trailhead is infinitely more dangerous than what you might encounter along the trail!
Tom Kloster | WyEast Blog